SLICE OF HEAVEN
If relaxation-therapy mantra stacks up, this kind of visualisation trick should help turn the choppy waters of your mind into a shimmering sea of calm. Or you could just set your compass for the Cook Islands, where no spectral travel skills are required to tap into the tropical surrounds and profound tranquility.
But this South Pacific gem is no one-trick pony. When you’ve lazed, frolicked and generally chilled to the point where all brain activity has ceased, when you’re about to slip into a coconut-and-rum-infused languor on a daybed, you can flip the whole tropical holiday equation on its head with activities to ramp up (or restart) your heartbeat, expand your mind, cater to your adventurous side or simply warm your spirit.
There are 15 islands in the Cook Islands, some uninhabited and others home to a select few. If there’s such a thing as ‘buzzing’ in the Cook Islands, Rarotonga or Raro — as it’s often called — is it. But all things are relative. There are no traffic lights, no big-name fast-food joints and, owing to the prohibition of constructions that stretch above the coconut trees, no high-rise development, so it remains relatively unspoilt. Raro ticks off tropical-escape fundamentals with no hint of trouble. The weather is pleasant, the beaches inviting and the turquoise lagoons and spectacular reefs that ring the island are something to behold, either from land or on a cruise/snorkeling adventure with operators such as Koka Lagoon Cruises. Book into accommodation that fronts the beach — and many do, including the luxurious self-contained Sea Change Villas — and you can indulge in sunbaking, swimming and more with next to zero additional travel needed.
Slipping into island time on Rarotonga is easier than slipping on a pair of thongs. But if you’re looking for adventure and need to break free from the beach, what then? For a memorable adventure, touch base with the cool cats at Raro Buggy Tours, who’ll set you up with an off-road buggy or quad bike and lead you on a merry chase into the mountains and jungle, doing everything they can to leave you picking mud out of places you didn’t even realise it could go.
To get even closer to Raro’s lush interior, tackle the Cross-Island Track, one of many walking options. This three- to four-hour walk, which can be done by yourself or on a tour, climbs from the north into the mountains, back down to the south coast through jungle, past rugged cliffs and the 413-metre rocky spire Te Rua Manga (The Needle).
A guided journey with Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours is another way to appreciate Raro’s unique culture and environment. Meander through quiet lanes and sleepy villages, stop off at farms to sample produce and enjoy a quick cool-off at a secluded jungle waterfall.
Many of the Cook Islands have attractions destined to soak up your time and resources, not least of all Atiu — with its untouched rainforests and beautiful, secluded beaches — and Mauke, with its spectacular fossilised-coral coasts. But the island that most travellers flock to after Rarotonga is Aitutaki, a 45-minute flight from Raro and the location of one of the world’s most jaw-droppingly beautiful lagoons. Just 1800 people call this island home and, with only a few hundred tourist beds on offer at a time, it’s free from big crowds. Of the accommodation options, some are very special, particularly the five-star Pacific Resort Aitutaki with its dazzling location, first-class service, great bar/restaurant combo and luxuriously appointed beachfront bungalows and villas. The island boasts the unmissable Tupuna’s Restaurant, one of the best dining options in all of the Pacific with a seafood curry that’s to die for, an endearingly low-key setting (it’s attached to a private house, away from the resorts) and a trio of friendly house cats.
A day on Aitutaki’s impossibly blue lagoon is something to put on the bucket list, whether you charter a private boat or are one of the crowd on the Vaka Lagoon Cruise, a catered six-hour affair on a boat with its own bar, incorporating several lazy stops for swimming, snorkelling and islet exploration.